This Sunday’s readings give me a deep sense of vertigo. Just as the devil took Jesus to the top of a high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the earth, in these readings it is like Jesus takes us to a great height and shows us all humanity, humanity in all its desires, its insecurities, its triumphs and its suffering. A great stormy ocean of history and freedom; but each drop of that ocean picked out and sparkling in the eternal light. The turbulence somehow given poetic shape by the gentle sun who rises high above.
A key to this gospel, though, is to know what comes immediately before. For the third time in St Mark’s gospel, Jesus has predicted his death and resurrection. He is marching towards Jerusalem and his fate. We read there: “Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed and those who followed were afraid.” This is real. This is what it is like to be in the presence of Jesus. This man walking ahead of us, this man able to heal the sick, to calm the storms, this man walking to certain death, this man is God. God who created the universe. God who holds all things in being. God who could turn off the lights in a moment but who does not because God is eternal love. He is marching ahead of us. This is who we are following.
Two weeks ago, we had Jesus placing a child in front of his disciples. He said we must accept the kingdom of God like a child. And today the sons of Zebedee approach him and tell him, Give us what we want. Could there be anything more childlike? And like children, they don’t really know what they want. They seek positions of power, but they don’t know what power is for. They seek honour, but they don’t really know where it comes from. They answer Jesus’s questions confidently, not really understanding their import.
But we, we the children of the sons of Zebedee, we know the family story. We know that when they say, Give us what we want, not only will Christ give it to them in the Garden of Gethsemane, but they will sleep while Christ fulfills their desires by handing his own over to the Father. When they are offered the chance to drink the cup that Christ will drink, they will they run away. In fact, when Christ takes his place on his throne of power, the Cross, the sons of Zebedee will lose their positions of power, to the right and to the left of Christ, they will lose their positions to two thieves.
This is our family story. Each one of us knows it by heart. Each one of us knows it by heart because each one of us has lived this. We want what we don’t understand. We desire what we can never achieve. We crave the communion that we cannot bring about. And we seek mercy for what we have done and what we cannot undo.
And the one who strides ahead of us, the one who makes his way to Jerusalem, knows all this. Last week, we heard how he is the light that reveals the deepest heart of humanity. He knows the horror, he knows the vulnerability, he knows the small betrayals and the even smaller victories. He knows each one of us in a love beyond comprehension. And like a parent, he takes us where we are. He does not mock us. He accepts our wilfulness and seeks to transform this desire for glory and honour and prestige, transform into a loving heart. One that seeks the lowest place so as better to reveal the glory of God and the glory of one’s brothers and sisters, especially the smallest, the seemingly insignificant.
Jesus is the one who in our first reading takes on the suffering of the world out of total love. He bears the burden of our sins that we might know the truth and that truth, the suffering heart of Christ revealed in the fallen state of the world, he bears the burden so that we might know the truth and that truth will set us free.
As I said, this is a dizzying gospel.
I mentioned last week the complexity of our moment in history, the tensions it gives rise to. But these are nothing compared to what is going on in the gospel. Rather, not nothing. Our problems, our challenges take their very dignity, their very meaning, and their only true perspective from what is happening in the heart of Christ.
So in the coming months, let us come back to this gospel and our family story. Let us remember what we really want and what it looks like. When things get hard, tempers fray and patience dries up, let us remember not to fall asleep and miss the moment of service. When things get turned upside down and we cannot understand the people around us, let us not run away from them. This is precisely where we should be. When the easiest thing to do is to push ahead of someone else, let’s push them ahead first. This is who we are and this is what we do.
Christ is with us. Christ knows all this. Christ has lived all this. Christ is the only true peace. The only true home. And he came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.